Mandela Day 2013

On Thursday July 18th I was fortunate enough to be in Johannesburg, South Africa, for Mandela Day. As the South African icon rested in a hospital for his birthday, South Africans are encouraged to participate in 67 minutes of community service in the spirit of all that Mandela fought for and was incarcerated for.

I joined up with two South African locals and set out to pick up rubbish in down town Johannesburg. After spending an hour driving around trying to locate the group we stumbled onto the Maboneng Precinct and a Mandela Day celebration being organised for the neighbourhood.

The group was planning to walk from Ponte through Hillborough and back to the street party handing out donated blankets and beanies to the homeless. This all sounded great, but having no idea of the history of these parts of Johannesburg, I began to worry slightly, when my friend Liesl asked “Is it safe to go into Ponte? We won’t get killed will we…?”

But we were reassured that it was fine. There would be a group of 30 made up mostly of Ponte locals (adults and children), plus other South African’s who lived in the outer suburbs of Johannesburg. And for the most part we were fine. There was the occasional unsettling moment when a scuffle broke out over the ownership of a newly distributed blanket, but it was understandable given that July is winter in South Africa and the temperature drops below freezing most nights. Concrete overpasses and footpaths would not be comfortable at the best of times and a blanket would make a huge difference.

One man though strengthened my faith in humanity. When the homeless locals of Hillborough started to get a bit overwhelming and rushing those handing out blankets, he called for order. “Make a line,” he said over and over, waving the growing group into an ordered line. Blankets and beanies were then distributed ensuring everyone got one, but without the pushing and shoving that had started to break out earlier. This small act spoke volumes about the man’s self-respect and dignity. That regardless of his survival instincts he appreciated, and was grateful, to the group for the blankets and therefore would not tolerate harassment towards anyone.

After passing through Hillborough we arrived back in Maboneng to continue celebrating with the local kids. A local businessman supplied a braai cook up free for all the kids and other activities had been organised by the Maboneng Precinct. Mandela Day had been more than just giving to the community, in the end it was a way to break down barriers. Barriers between class, race, and culture for all of us to remember that each person deserves to be treated with respect and to show that same respect back.


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